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why I go to book festivals, and a case for the hybrid book fair

It’s 2:47 p.m. on Wednesday, October 28th, and I’m on the International Literature Festival Dublin website, waiting for the closing talk of this virtual festival to begin—“Unfolding Maps: A Celebration of Tim Robinson.”

I admit I didn’t know what I was signing up for. I just learned of this festival a day ago, and I registered for the one talk that I could make given the time difference—8:00 p.m. Irish Standard Time is 3:00 p.m. Central Daylight Time here in Madison (and given the zoom work/school schedule of the two other people in my house).

There are literally hundreds of book festivals around the world each year, and I would bet rather than cancelling this year, a good number of them have gone online. Two weeks ago I attended the Wisconsin Book Festival, all virtual. I got to see a wonderful conversation between Meg Wolitzer and Claire Messud; Claire Messud spoke at one point of all the noise in the world at the moment, and the need to counter that by attending to the small things in our lives. Laila Lalami talked about being Muslim in the United States and how she lives in the “grey zone,” an intellectual and emotional space where you don’t choose sides of highly partisan political or religious debates. And Paola Ramos, giving her interview from an airport lounge in between flights, talked about the term “Latinx,” and how it embraces the immense diversity of the Latin American population in the United States—the many different nationalities, the different cultures, the different generations, the different identities. And the fact that migration to another country is really about love, that people go where their loved ones have gone.

The Wisconsin Book Festival started in 2013, and quickly evolved into a fall event with other book talks held throughout the year. But this is the first year that these talks have been recorded and are available to view past the original scheduled time. This has been made possible with Crowdcast, a live, video hosting platform that allows you to scale to very large audiences. Because of this, I’m still able to tune into book talks given earlier this year.

The literature festival in Dublin is also being held on Crowdcast. I’m curious to see how many viewers this talk on Tim Robinson will draw. The event is about to start, and the chat stream is busy with attendees sending greetings from different locations in Ireland and from all over the world: “Dialing in from stormy South West Kerry” scrolls by as well as messages from the UK, the Netherlands, France, Portugal, Spain, Australia and numerous other locations, including those within the United States and Canada. The chat box prompts: “Say something nice,” and I add my hello from Wisconsin.

I was in Dublin for the first time two years ago with my family. The week we were there the annual Bloomsday Festival was taking place all over the city. I have never read Ulysses, but it’s on my bucket list, and it would have been great fun to hear someone reading it with an authentic Irish accent. But all the events were sold out, and I hadn’t had time before the trip to look into tickets. One day my daughter and I took a train to Dalkey, a little seaside town south of Dublin, and we discovered that Dalkey, too, was having a book festival, and it, too, was sold out.

We consoled ourselves by heading into a small, charming bookstore—The Gutter Bookshop—where I lingered over a display of authors from Ireland and Northern Ireland. I discovered that there are two Gutter Bookshops in Ireland—the Dalkey store and another one in Dublin. Their tagline is an Oscar Wilde quote—“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” I was browsing their website the other night; they are the official bookstore for the International Literature Festival Dublin, and this is how I found out about it.

The panel for this talk on Tim Robinson comprises four people: Fintan O’Toole, the columnist and literary critic as moderator; the Irish poet Moya Cannon; the British author Robert McFarlane; and the French photographer Nicolas Fève. They share their stories—their lyrical, exquisite words speak of tremendous affection and admiration for this incredibly prolific, creative person. They remember precious times spent in his company, they express awe for his immense and varied body of work, and they touch on their palpable grief at his unexpected passing in April from COVID-19. The panelists’ nuanced commentary provides a wonderful introduction to this polymath—author, artist, illustrator, mathematician, cartographer—and I want to know more about his writing and more about the detailed maps he made over many years of the Aran Islands and the Connemara region. At one point I glance at the attendance counter at the bottom of my screen, and I see that there are 875 people viewing this talk.

Some year, perhaps when we have gained much more knowledge about this virus and we have developed effective ways to prevent it, and book festivals can once again occur in a physical space, there are some I would love to attend in person. One that is high on my list is the Frankfurt Book Fair. This is one of the oldest book fairs in the world; most accounts date it to the 12th century, when it would have sold manuscripts and other books made by hand. I like to imagine what it would have been like to attend this fair before and after the advent of movable type in the mid-1400s, just down the road in Mainz. Today it is considered to be the largest book fair in the world. It was due to be held this year with in-person events, but at the last minute the organizers decided they could not in good conscience hold it with COVID-19 numbers on the rise again in Germany, and so it, too, went online.

I also hope, though, that beyond this very unusual year, book festivals might consider committing to a hybrid model—that in addition to holding author events in a physical space they might also continue to connect with audiences virtually. That the online model of delivering author talks and interviews and the vastly larger audience it’s possible to reach will prove to be such an advantageous proposition that they will embrace a hybrid structure going forward. From my perspective, it’s an unparalleled prospect not to be restricted by location.

The website for the Frankfurt Book Fair reports that this year they had 1,500,000 clicks on their digital fair platform and 200,000 users on their website, joining from 124 countries. This is compared to 300,000 in-person attendees last year, which seems like a good outcome given that the festival had to suddenly switch gears this year. The Dublin and Wisconsin festivals don’t have any numbers up yet on attendance at their virtual programs this year; Wisconsin lists data generally: they state that each year they attract around 15,000 people for more than 100 author events. It will be interesting to see numbers from both of these festivals for this year when they become available.

Is it possible to have both formats each year, simultaneously? Is the cost of hosting an author talk on a digital platform prohibitive, especially alongside the costs of a physical festival? And what about sponsors and partners—would this look radically different in a hybrid model? Obviously, an onsite book festival includes a large number of local sponsors and partners, because they are appealing to and depending on the local audience for traffic. But there are also national and international sponsors that could be brought onboard.

The hour has swiftly passed, and the presentation on Tim Robinson is wrapping up. I think it’s rather funny that for the first Irish book festival I finally made it to, I am not in Dublin, and I am not in Dalkey—I am seated in front of my laptop at home in the United States. And while I did not have people sitting next to me to chat with about the festival, and I did not have the opportunity to wait in line to talk with presenters or to get a book signed, and I missed all the other clamor and excitement of an onsite book festival, I still came away with the glow and energy that these festivals bestow. Because I got what I came for. The book festival, regardless of how it’s delivered, invites us to learn about the landscapes that inform the stories that authors tell. Today I “unfolded the map” of Tim Robinson’s world, and the physical landscapes that he walked and interacted with and wrote about on the west coast of Ireland. And I feel like I’ve traveled somewhere new, and this new place has much to teach me.


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